Lunch Shaming

Cheese Stick

Just when I thought I’d heard everything, I read this week in the Sacramento Bee that there is a thing called “lunch shaming.”  This can take a number of forms, but it involves kids, including little ones in first and second grade, who come to school without a lunch or any money to buy one.  What the school does about this situation varies greatly from one district to another.

Some schools advance the kid the money needed to buy lunch.  Others let the kid go hungry.  Apparently, however, many schools take a middle road in which they provide kids in this predicament with a “basic lunch” such as a cheese sandwich.

The shaming comes in when kids are embarrassed when they don’t get the same hot lunch that their peers are eating but instead are stuck with a bland alternative lunch.  Most of the class may be enjoying pizza and salad, but the hapless kid with no lunch money is given some cheese sticks and crackers or a cheese sandwich.  Some school districts have elected to stop this practice and let the kid have the regular hot lunch.  And here in California, a bill has now been introduced in the state legislature prohibiting schools from providing moneyless students with an alternative lunch.

Interestingly, the Bee article failed to mention the shaming that occurs when a poor kid brings his lunch from home, which turns out to be something sparse — such as a plain cheese sandwich.  When I was in school, eons ago, lots of kids faced this situation and no one thought anything about it.  Of course, the school can’t do anything about that because it has no control of parents who send their kids to school with a crappy lunch.  What they do have control over is what they give those kids who come to school with no lunch at all.  Gee, if I had known about this back in the day, I may have conveniently forgotten to take my brown bag sandwich on a day when the school lunch menu showed something good was being served.

Apparently, the shaming gets worse.  Schools have taken a variety of draconian measures to collect lunch money from parents who fail to load money onto their children’s accounts.  These range from sending letters home with the kid to posting lists on the wall to stamping a kid’s arm with the words “Lunch Money.”

To their credit, many school districts have given up on such tactics in favor of contacting the parent directly via email or phone calls.

So what is causing kids to arrive at school without any lunch or money?  Many parents, of course, are very poor, qualifying their kids for free breakfast and lunch.  The problem is that parents forget to fill out the paperwork necessary for their kids to get on the program.  My guess is that some parents have other things on their minds (like surviving another month) and that others just don’t give a darn.  Then there are those parents who don’t read very well and are unlikely to understand any paperwork set in front of them.

An aspect of this story that particularly fascinated me is the price of a school lunch.  When I was a kid, it was 40 cents.  If we brought a lunch from home, we could buy a half-pint of milk to go with it for four cents.  My parents would keep a penny cup on the dresser in their bedroom, from which we were expected to remember to extract the four pennies necessary to buy milk.  Today, however, the typical price of a school lunch is $2.75.  This is almost a sevenfold increase over the intervening decades.  I can understand parents being unable or unwilling to pay 55 to 60 dollars per month for their kids’ lunches.

So what should the schools do about this situation?  Many say that kids should not be punished for the shortcomings of their parents.  While not depriving kids of food just because their parents make poor choices resonates with me on a visceral level, ultimately the sins of the parents are always visited upon the sons.  Kids cannot be taken away from their parents just because they happened to be born into poor families.  So one way or the other, the kids are the ones who suffer.

I propose that the answer to the “lunch shaming” problem is to provide all schoolkids with free breakfast and lunch.  The feds, state and local governments, and the school districts will have to work out the fiscal arrangements needed to pay for this.  Neither the kids nor the teachers nor the school administrators should ever have to be concerned about whether a student will end up with an inferior lunch or no lunch at all.

As for those who would criticize my “welfare state” attitude, I say hands off the innocents.  Our youngest Americans are our future.  Jeopardizing the future of our nation by tolerating kids who are not prepared to learn because they have nothing to eat is simply unacceptable in the wealthiest nation on earth.


Of Fire Drills and Lockdowns

Back when I was in elementary school, about a million years ago, I thought that fire drills were pretty cool.  Not only did they get us out of doing our work for a few minutes, but there was the whole process of the thing.  They were exciting!

I think it was the element of surprise that really got me.  One minute I’d be hunched over my purple math ditto, working through the steps of a long division problem, when suddenly I’d bolt upright upon hearing that jarring Clang! Clang! Clang!

“Alright, everyone grab your coat and line up at the front of the room!” the teacher would announce.  There’d be a mad scramble to tear parkas and hats off hooks.

We were really good at lining up.  After all, we had to do it every day to go to lunch and then again to be dismissed to the school buses.  Lining up was always by size place, with myself and a couple of other shorties leading the way while the two guys who had an early growth spurt and had already passed the six foot mark bringing up the rear.

Lines of students of all ages, from the tiny kindergarteners to the big sixth graders, would stream out of the doors onto the playground.  Each class would gather around its teacher on the blacktop to wait for the all-clear.  Meanwhile, my heart would race with excitement as the clanging continued to scream from the open doors.  But it usually wouldn’t be but a few minutes until the alarm was turned off and all of us were shooed back into the school.

The one type of fire drill that really annoyed me was the one that occurred on the school bus.  The driver would announce the drill and then walk around to the back of the bus and open the emergency exit.  An alarm would sound and we all had to jump off the back of the bus.  As a fat, uncoordinated kid, I had a lot of trouble executing that particular maneuver.  It looked so far down to jump.  And it would hurt my feet when I hit the pavement.  And I might land on my knees.  More than once, a sympathetic bus driver would reach up and lift me down.  God bless them and their hernias!  I hope they had good chiropractors and excellent health coverage.

It never occurred to me that there could actually be a fire or any type of emergency in the school.  We all knew it was just a drill and we enjoyed the excuse to waste some time.

My parents, who grew up during the Second World War, tell stories about enduring air raid drills in elementary school.  All the kids knew how to “duck and cover,” cowering under their desks until the air raid sirens stopped their frightening bellow.

Air raid drills back in the forties were entirely different than the relatively benign fire drills of my own childhood.  With an air raid drill, you never knew if it was for real or not.  My grandfather was an air raid warden who enforced the “lights out” rules at night.  The Japs could try to get us at any time, just like they did in Pearl Harbor.  Even in the sixties, when I started school, the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present and there were therefore yellow air raid shelter signs attached to the outside of schools and many apartment buildings in my native New York City.

In my junior high and high school years, however, we had to deal with a series of bomb threats.  One of the administrators would pull the fire alarm and a couple of thousand of us would roll out of every exit in waves. We’d cross the access road and wait up on the hillsides and athletic fields while the fire engines screamed onto the school grounds and cops with bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the halls, and checking out every classroom, nook and cranny.  This process typically took an hour or more.  It was exciting at first, particularly when a bomb threat caused us to have shortened school periods or to actually lose a couple of class periods entirely.

But then it would happen twice in one week and there’d be yet another bomb threat the next week, and it started to get old.  If it were mid-winter, they wouldn’t pull the fire alarm; it might be below zero and there was no time for everyone to go to their lockers to retrieve their coats.  Instead, one of the assistant principals would make an announcement over the public address system that we were all to proceed to the gym immediately.  It was quite a sight when everyone in the entire school, adults and kids alike, was packed cheek to jowl into the bleachers.

The rumors flew as to why this was happening.  The general consensus was that one or more students were responsible.  Kids were calling in bomb threats from the pay phone, or they didn’t come to school that day and called them in from at home.  (Imagine what could happen today with smart phones!)  We never found out what was going on, but we all knew that the Vietnam War was raging and that there was a certain contingent of the student body who believed that any form of disruption was right and proper under the circumstances.

Today things are different.  The air raid drills of the war years and the bomb threats endured by my fellow baby boomers are long gone.  There is the occasional fire drill, of course, to comply with the law.  But what today’s kids have to put up with is the school lockdown.

In the wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook, the danger these days is not from bombs raining down from the sky or thrown into the cafeteria by war protestors.  No, today we have to worry about the kid who comes to school with a gun or the outsider who breaks into the building, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and murderous intent.

So our children have become accustomed to the teacher locking the door and turning out all the lights while everyone hides as best they can, packed into corners and closets.  It might be nothing or it might be disaster.  One never knows.  Everyone is supposed to be quiet and huddle together.  Kids desiring to send panicked text messages are warned that the light from a cell phone could give them away to a killer.

An article published in the New York Times this week cites the negative psychological effects that school lockdowns have on children.  Kids as young as five and six years old have nightmares about bad men with guns attacking their schools.  At home, brothers and sisters play “lockdown” by hiding or running to the basement at a prearranged signal.

“Some parents wonder whether the trend has laid a backdrop of fear and paranoia across their children’s education,” states the Times article. When I first viewed the article, it was just beginning to receive comments.  Upon my second reading, it had logged 194 of them.

I noticed that the comments were full of the usual indictments of the Second Amendment, pleas for gun control and counterarguments from gun enthusiasts.  Some parents wrote of the futility of huddling in corners and closets, citing the Sandy Hook murders as a product of such “massing.”  Others wrote of the inevitable scarring that results when children are required to exit their schools with their hands on their heads to show that they have no weapons.

Another commenter remarked that children “understand that the fabric of society has worn thin when it comes to school shootings, and that they are on the front lines.”

In other words, today’s schoolchildren understand that they may be in danger at any moment and that neither teachers nor parents can protect them.  Their grandparents’ air raid drills and their parents’ bomb threats are long ago events that may as well be described in history books.  Even the “drop and roll” maneuver and training in the use of fire extinguishers have become quaint anachronisms in the era of mass shootings.

In the age of the lockdown, it is a wonder that children are able to concentrate on their studies long enough to learn anything.  Instead of school being a nurturing, comforting environment, it has become a scary place where the real creeps into their nightmares and their nightmares become real.


California’s AB 1266: Equality, Respect and Peeing

rest room

So I’m still trying to help the niece get through quadratic equations.  Factoring some of these babies is like wrestling with a grizzly bear, I tell you.  Particularly the ones with fourth powers and such.  Just remember to rationalize your roots and use integer factoring before resorting to the quadratic formula.  Oh, and get rid of the variables in those denominators.  Simplify your expressions.  Show your work.

I’m so glad I’m not in school anymore.

My niece loves her psychology class but is stumped on choosing a topic for her final paper.  It has to be a current issue and she must introduce it by expressing her position in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.  The instructor wants her students to stay away from topics that are “redundant.”  Whatever that means.  “Not gun control” was the example offered.  My guess is that this teacher doesn’t want to see any topic that has been debated to death in the news.

I asked my niece whether she had anything in mind.  She told me she’d like to gripe about why 18 year olds can die for their country in a war but can’t drink legally.  I asked if she’d Googled the topic and she said she had, but found nothing.  I suggested this could be because 18 year olds who are active military can drink legally.

So now we’re back to square one.  I suggested doing something on bullying, a topic that has returned to the news in the wake of last week’s murder/suicide at Sparks Middle School.  But we couldn’t decide whether or not this falls within the purview of the “redundant.”

One topic that interests my niece is California’s AB 1266, the recent law that modified the state Education Code to grant transgendered students the right to use their choice of the school’s boys’ or girls’ rest rooms and locker rooms, even before sex reassignment surgery.  Massachusetts and Colorado already have adopted similar laws, so our Golden State legislators are not exactly being mavericks here.

I rather like this topic, because it exposes entirely unreasonable societal fears for the warrantless cultural bugaboos they really are.  Tell me how this goes now?  As long as the student in the skirt still has male equipment, that student needs to stay out of the ladies’ room?  But as soon as she (yes, I said “she”) has her junk removed, it will be okay?  After all, we wouldn’t want any transitioning male-to-female transgendered people committing rapes in the women’s.  (Say what??)  Preoperative female-to-male transgendered people we don’t really care about, as they haven’t the equipment to rape anyone with.  Does this sound as insane to you as it does to me?

Of course, the conservative right and the evangelicals are up in arms.  That’s okay, go ahead and withdraw your kids from the public schools.  It may reduce the state aid available to our district, but at least it will improve the student-teacher ratio (until they start laying off teachers, that is).  Besides, home schooling rocks.

I went a step further and suggested that the whole issue of who is permitted to use which rest room is little more than a tempest in a teacup.  I am thinking in terms of all public rest rooms, not just those in schools.  Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that rest rooms were segregated by race.  Why should they continue to be segregated by gender?

If rest rooms in airports, stores and public buildings were not segregated by gender, the idea wouldn’t seem so radical in the case of schools. And when is a better time to teach gender equality, respect and human decency than during the formative years?

One thing that all of us of both genders have in common is that, sooner or later, we gotta go pee.  Standards of common decency should be no different in a rest room than elsewhere.  Like so many things, this goes back to how children are raised.  In the home, the bathrooms are not labeled “men’s and “women’s.”

I had to tell my niece a story about the rest rooms in my freshman college dormitory.  Each floor of the dorm had two wings, one for men and one for women.  Each gender had a large rest room and shower facility in the center of its wing.  In the men’s wing, the problem was that many of the guys had girlfriends who liked to stay overnight and didn’t want to have to trudge all the way over to the other wing to go pee in the middle of the night.  The residence assistant called a meeting to take a vote of the men living in our wing as to whether women should be permitted to use our rest room and shower facility.  The “yes” vote would have been unanimous if not for the fact that yours truly took the coward’s way out and abstained.

As I saw it, I no more wanted women walking in on me than the women in the other wing wanted men walking in on them.  So what terrible things happened?  Absolutely none.  I became accustomed to exiting a rest room stall to find a woman in a bath robe coming out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her hair.  It occurred to me that this was not that different from what I experienced with my sisters back at home.

I think the increasing popularity of “family rest rooms” is a baby step in the right direction.  This solves the problem of what Dad should do when his four year old daughter has to pee during a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.  The naysayers point out that family rest rooms are “single occupancy;” if the parent locks the door, no one else can walk in.  As I say, it’s just a step.  But it’s better than nothing.

A rest room should be just that, a rest room.  A neutral location divested of political and religious issues, an equal opportunity place where anyone can go pee.  I suppose there will always be those who obsess over who is a woman, who is a man, and who may legally step into a particular rest room.  I think those people have bigger problems.


The Next Time

In the wake of Monday’s tragic news, my plan was to support the Sparks NV community by writing a post describing some of my delightful visits to that city.  Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem like the right time or place.

Along with the rest of the world, I was shocked to learn that a middle school student brought a gun to school and used it to murder a beloved eighth grade math teacher, to seriously wound two fellow students and then to kill himself.

The media is full of speculation about how this happened, but there seem to be more questions than answers at this point.

Where did the child get the gun?  The news stories are assuming that he brought it from home, that it belonged to his parents and that he somehow had access to it.

What would drive a 12 year old to such extremes of violence?  The word “bullying” is being bandied about as if it were a dirty little secret that may be spoken of only in whispers.

Meanwhile, the national gun control debate has once again bubbled to the surface as if to rip open the scars over an all too recent wound.

Columbine.  Virginia Tech.  Sandy Hook.  Sparks.

Year after year, the school murders reappear in the headlines.  And each time it happens, we are shocked all over again, as if it were happening for the first time.  And we mourn.  We grieve with the families of the victims, the students and parents and teachers who will never again be the same, the communities that are sent reeling.

We talk about how this horror could have been avoided and what we can do to prevent there being a next time.  But then there is a next time.

Should armed guards stand watch at all times that school is in session?  Should teachers be permitted, or even required to carry firearms?  Should school staff and even young students participate in “active shooter” training?  Has being a kid in America really come to all of this?

The issue of providing better mental health care for our youngsters inevitably comes up.  Everyone should know the signs of mental turmoil and distress (although what adolescent doesn’t experience this?).  We must destigmatize mental health concerns and make it easy for students to get help.

And we talk about that old bugaboo, “bullying.”  We satisfy ourselves with lip service to a zero-tolerance policy and then wonder why teachers and parents look the other way when students engage in physical, verbal and online harassment, why they teach their kids that they have to suck it up and be tough, that “sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never harm you.”

As the weeks go by, the tragedy at Sparks Middle School will slowly be forgotten, subsumed into our increasingly jaded collective national conscience.  And much like issues such as the federal budget and the Electoral College, it will be “out of sight, out of mind” — until the next time (and the time after that and the time after that).

But those who were there on Monday, and their families, friends and colleagues, won’t ever be able to forget.  And neither should you.

Please call upon your elected representatives on the federal, state and local levels to turn their attention to the relevant issues, and not to give up until every kid and teacher who leaves for school in the morning can be guaranteed to return home in the evening.

Do it now.  So there’s not a next time.

RIP Michael Landsberry:  Husband, father, Marine, math teacher, coach.  Hero.